Syracuse Crunch January Recap: Signs of Optimism Approaching Season’s Midpoint

LAVAL, QC - JANUARY 12: Charles Hudon #55 of the Syracuse Crunch skates the puck during the first period against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on January 12, 2022 in Laval, Canada. The the Laval Rocket defeated the Syracuse Crunch 3-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC - JANUARY 12: Charles Hudon #55 of the Syracuse Crunch skates the puck during the first period against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on January 12, 2022 in Laval, Canada. The the Laval Rocket defeated the Syracuse Crunch 3-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /
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January Storylines

Jimmy Huntington and Alexey Lipanov Traded

Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois started off February by making two change of scenery trades for two struggling prospects that have spent time with the Crunch. Jimmy Huntington and Alexey Lipanov are both forwards in the last year of their entry-level contracts and had struggled to gain traction in their two and a half seasons with Lightning affiliate teams in Syracuse and Orlando.

Huntington played 88 games over his three seasons with the Crunch and scored 11 goals and 18 assists. Lipanov was scoreless in the 5 games he played for the Crunch in the 2020 and 2022 seasons as he spent most of his time in the ECHL with the Orlando Solar Bears. In 2021 Lipanov spent the season in the second-tier Russian league, the VHL.

In return for Lipanov the Lightning received 23-year-old LW Tye Felhaber from the Dallas Stars. Felhaber has 2 goals in 14 games with the Stars’ AHL affiliate this season. For Huntington, the Lightning received 25-year-old center Anthony Richard from the Nashville Predators. Richard has 7 goals and 5 assists in 31 games with the Predators’ AHL affiliate this season.

These trades will likely not affect the Crunch or Lightning too much as Lipanov was never able to make meaningful on-ice impacts with Syracuse and Huntington had been stuck on the Crunch’s fourth line for some time after jumping out to one of the best goal-scoring starts in Crunch history this season. Felhaber has already been assigned to the Solar Bears and what impact Richard might have with the Crunch remains to be seen.

Crunch Sign P.C. Labrie and Frank Hora to AHL Contracts

The Crunch made two additions to the roster during January signing veteran forward P.C. Labrie to a two-year AHL contract and defenseman Frank Hora to a one-year AHL contract. Labrie should be a familiar name to Crunch and Lightning fans as he played 46 games with the Lightning between the 2012-2014 seasons and 77 games with the Crunch during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. While not known as an offensive talent, Labrie has quickly added another layer of leadership and physicality to the Crunch. Hora has been with the Crunch for most of the season on a PTO but earned himself a contract as he has proven to be the Crunch’s preferred option to insert into the lineup when injuries or NHL call-ups have depleted the Crunch’s blue line.

Goaltending Carousel Reemerges Amid Injuries and Mixed Performances

January looked like it was going to be the month when Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt finally settled into their split starting role for the Crunch as Amir Miftakhov was reassigned to the Solar Bears, but an injury to Lagace in the first half of the month and an injury to Alnefelt in the second half of the month brought Miftakhov right back into the Crunch goaltending equation.

All three goalies had inconsistent performances over the month as none of the three truly looked like they could take over as the number one netminder for the Crunch. However, Alnefelt did raise his stats and win count after starting a stretch of games that the Crunch played their best defense of the season yet in but had let in a handful of goals that needed to be stopped. And Miftakhov was an unlucky redirection off a Crunch defenseman away from recording his second shutout of the season on January 26th against the Cleveland Monsters but ended the month giving up 6 goals to the Charlotte Checkers in a blowout loss.

Veterans Remain Consistent as Lightning Prospects Find Their Feet

One thing that has caught me off-guard this season has been who’s been consistently scoring for the Crunch. Veteran forwards Gabriel Dumont, Charles Hudon, and Remi Elie account for 34 of the Crunch’s 97 goals. While that stat is not puzzling on its own, it has been the lack of scoring from experienced prospects that I had expected to see better performances from at the beginning of the season that has been surprising.

Otto Somppi has had a trying season offensively as he only has 3 goals in 24 games after posting 12 goals in 32 games last season. Sommpi currently has a career low shooting percentage of 9.1%. Gabriel Fortier has also not improved on his goal scoring pace from last season as he has 6 goals in 30 games for consecutive seasons. Although, positively, he has seen his shots per game increase from 1.2 to 1.67 this season. Rookie Simon Ryfors has had issues that we have previously documented, but even as he has looked more comfortable in the past two months, he still only has 4 goals in 34 games and a 6.6% shooting percentage after his 25 goals in 51 SHL games last season earned him his NHL contract. Even more shocking to me was that Alex Barre-Boulet only has 3 goals in his 17 games and a career low shooting percentage of 5.3% (nearly 1/3 of his career average sh%).

Surprisingly it has been the rookies, not including 24-year-old Ryfors, that have been finding the net at higher rates. Cole Koepke leads the way among rookies, and prospects, with 9 goals in 28 games with a 10.7% shooting percentage. Gage Goncalves has 6 goals in 29 games with a 14.0% shooting percentage. Maxim Cajkovic has 3 goals in 19 games with a 12.5% shooting percentage. Koepke has been the best Lightning prospect of the season with all his goals coming at even-strength and generating 2.90 shots per game. Goncalves and Cajkovic have struggled at times with shot generation though, but it is still encouraging to see them finding the back of the net at a decent rate.

I do believe that the lack of goal-scoring from the four mentioned to be struggling has contributed to some of the Crunch’s losses as the absence of progression and regression of goal-scoring, in some cases, accounts for at least somewhere between 10-20 goals that the Crunch could have had. Barre-Boulet alone would have 5-6 more goals if he were shooting at his career average rate.

There is still over half the season remaining for the players to get back on track, so there still remains hope that the Crunch will be able to have a more balanced attack offensively that does not rely as heavily upon the veteran forwards.

Special Teams Has Taken a 180 From Beginning of Season

Perhaps the biggest change the Crunch have seen all season has been a complete reversal in their special team’s performance since the beginning of the season. For a stretch in November the Crunch were the best PK unit in the league and their power play was one of the worst. Now, the Crunch’s PK is 29th of 31 with a 75.2% success rate and the power play has improved to the 7th of 31 with a 21.3% success rate.

I believe some of the negative regression in PK performance can be attributed to the shuffling of players between Syracuse and Tampa as Fredrik Claesson and Andrej Sustr are important defensive pieces that have spent lots of time in Tampa over the past two months. For forwards, the Crunch lost PK stalwart Gabriel Fortier to the Lightning for a month, but Fortier has also seen a slight dip in performance since returning from his NHL call-up.

Signs of Optimism Heading into Second Half of Season

Overall, January was a step in the right direction as the Crunch collected more than half of the points available and moved into 5th in the North Division. The addition of P.C. Labrie seems to have elevated the Crunch and the ending of the NHL taxi squad after the All-Star break should mean less missed games from the Crunch’s top defensemen and forwards.

Another positive sign from January was that the Crunch outshot their opponents in 10 of their 13 games. In total they recorded 389 shots on goals and only gave up 303 to their opponents. That is an impressive 56.2% shots on goal share.

The Crunch will still need some Lightning prospects to elevate their performance going forward and a goalie to emerge as a reliable starter, as all three having save percentages below 90% is not a great position to be in, but there are clearly signs that the Crunch, as a team, are turning the corner as they approach the halfway point of the season.

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